For today’s Science Friday I wanted to talk about science policy (mostly because I don’t have time today to dissect a hard science article) . This week’s edition of the journal Science features an article (paid subscription required) that debates the suggestion by some that there exists a glass ceiling for Asians in science leadership positions, here in the U.S.:
Virologist Kuan-Teh Jeang always thought it strange that his employer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), would celebrate Asian Heritage Week each year with a cultural fair. “We’re not known for being great cooks or dancers. We’re known for being great scientists,” says Jeang about an ethnic group that, according to 2000 census data, comprises 14.7% of U.S. life scientists despite being only 4.1% of the nation’s overall workforce. So last year, he and the NIH/Food and Drug Administration Chinese American Association launched a new tradition: inviting a distinguished Asian researcher to give a scientific talk.
This May, as Asian Heritage Week approached, Jeang and his colleagues had another idea: Why not use the occasion to examine the status of Asian scientists within NIH’s intramural program? Jeang had already collected some disturbing numbers about opportunities for career advancement at NIH, and he was eager to see whether his numbers squared with an official tally by NIH officials.
To his chagrin, they did. Whereas 21.5% of NIH’s 280 tenure-track investigators (the equivalent of assistant professors) are Asian, they comprise only 9.2% of the 950 senior investigators (tenured researchers) at NIH. And only 4.7% of the roughly 200 lab or branch chiefs are Asian. (For this story, the term “Asian” includes all scientists with Asian surnames, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. The group is dominated by scientists of Chinese, Korean, Indian, Pakistani, or Japanese origin.) Within particular institutes, the numbers were even more sobering. As of this spring, just one of 55 lab chiefs at the National Cancer Institute, NIH’s largest, was Asian. At the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where Jeang works, none of the 22 lab chiefs was Asian.
To Jeang and others, the numbers point to a glass ceiling for Asian life scientists seeking to move up the career ladder.
p>I know this may be a contentious issue. Some people automatically think that any suggestion of inequality is “whining.” Maybe part of the lack of Asians in leadership positions may be due to the stigma associated with a language barrier (or a perceived barrier). This should become much less of an issue as a generation of American-born Asians reaches “the proper age of leadership.”Another scientist quoted in the article is more blunt in voicing his displeasure:
“Chinese Americans tend to be quiet, partly because their voices and concerns are not listened to. But should that mean obedience and subordination forever?”
p>Not everyone is convinced however that this is even an issue. “What discrimination?” ask some.
But the issue is also very complicated, says Yu Xie, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who has studied both the behavior of scientists and the growing presence of Asians in U.S. society. “Often people look at statistics, and they jump to the conclusion that there has been discrimination,” says Yu, who came to the United States from China in 1982 for graduate school. “I haven’t seen any evidence that it is the case. It might be true, but we just don’t know enough to reach a conclusion one way or the other.” Indeed, several Asian scientists interviewed for this article say they haven’t experienced any type of glass ceiling. “I personally don’t feel that it applies to me. But I’m not very sensitive,” says Liqun Luo of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who earlier this year was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
In my experience there does seem to be a lack of Asians and South Asians in leadership positions in science and engineering. In general, it seems like we are employed more often as worker bees. Since we do it so well why shake up the status quo? Like I said though, this could be a generational thing. I for one am not satisfied unless I’m in charge.